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Welcome to the early access report, a regular round-up looking at the most interesting early access games of the moment. Here we try new alphas and revisit old ones to separate the promising gems from the bug-ravaged time wasters. This week Craig trashes a fleet of vehicles in spectacular ways in Next Car Game and Turbo Dismount, and then relaxes with a serene adventure.
Two games about crashing vehicles popped up on Steam Early Access this week. They make an interesting pairing: Next Car Game is from the makers of the good FlatOut games, a series that understood the joy of carnage. Though it lands on Steam with plenty of room in the boot, what's there is a lot of fun. Turbo Dismount skidded in as well, a strange game about setting up crashes and watching the aftermath. It's incredibly low-fi, and actually feels like it'd work well in Next Car Game's engine, but has its own quirky personality, as does Secrets Of Raetikon , which doesn't have cars, but is a fine calming influence after the noise of all that mangled steel..
Next Car Game , then. It's been on quite a journey to get here: a cancelled crowd-funding effort somehow shifted gears into a incredibly successful pre-order campaign. I've no idea how they managed that, and because of those funding hurdles, I didn't expect NCG to arrive quite so speedily. It is a little slim on content, with two cars, three tracks, and not much else. The three-track selection includes gravel and tarmac race tracks and a destruction derby arena. The two cars are plucked from disparate ends of the muscle/speed spectrum, one resembling a large mini (I do not know cars), and the other filling the American muscle monster category. You can swap out tyres and engines, and flick the toggles for gears, traction control, anti-spin, and ABS. That's all there is at the moment. It resembles a demo, but what is here is a lot of fun, and shows just how serious BugBear are being with their ridiculous car game. It's gloriously OTT.
I've surprised myself by enjoying the races more than the metallic vortex that is the arena. Races support either 12 or 24 drivers (there's also a tutorial mode that's an empty track), and with the aggressive and single-minded AI, things go wrong right on the starting grid. Seconds after pummelling on the accelerator, you'll see cars twisting in the air, or crumbling against barriers. Each strike sends out an extraordinary amount of debris, and dangerous corners resemble a car graveyard - a mix of twisted metal, concrete chunks, and the shock absorbing tires piled at each deep turn that have spilled onto the track.
There are two stages in each race. In the opening few laps you use your car aggressively, swiping and grinding up against every other driver. Stage two begins when the "Critical Damage" warning starts flashing up on your screen, changing your previously cavalier attitude and downshifting to a more sensible pace. After a few races, those two mental states will merge, and the debris and smashes can be swerved around, and your own involvement reduced to something more tactical. Or not, if you just really like smashing things.
It's a thin slice, but I feel I can recommend it - what's here is very encouraging and playable, and it runs well. And if you're a tad unsure, the very first tech demo is now free to download . I really enjoyed that as well.
What's missing from the current build of Next Car Game is FlatOut's driver tossing crash modes, but you can find something similar in Turbo Dismount - a game about torturing a ragdoll driver by revving up a vehicle and releasing it into obstacles. It's one of the stranger Early Access games. It's so casual and cheap that it already feels full, with ten levels (ranging from roads to missile launch pads), nine vehicles, a number of poses, and an editor that allows you to add and change elements to the current levels. The goal is to climb the leaderboard by creating spectacular crashes with your little crash test dummy: broken wheels and broken bones drop points like floppy ragdolls.
The developer has promised more of everything in the coming months, but if I had one suggestion it would be a more complete replay mode. Tight now when you finish a level, it allows you to rewatch it in normal and slow-motion, but the camera is fixed on the vehicle and/or the player, and it's begging to be freed. I want to nudge those angles and make beautiful and broken ragdoll art. Other than that, the content matches the cheap price, it's perfectly playable, and I bet if you put a four year-old down in front of it they'd laugh like a drain.
Even in that company, Secrets Of Raetikon is an oddity. It's a 2D exploration game about being a bird in the Alps. It feels lovely to soar through the sky, occasionally beating your wings to skim along the treeline, or tapping the dive button. It is very... birdy, and can be surprisingly cut-throat.
It's an interesting collision of exploration and puzzles, and I think the developers are using Early Access in this case to balance how obtuse they can be against usability, though there is content missing as well. Up in the Alps, there are mysterious runes to decipher, and puzzles to figure out. They clearly don't want to take away the thrill of discovery. That moment when you realise that pulling a rock loose from a mountain side, every beat of your wings straining against it, is truly lovely. That's a mild spoiler, but there's so much more to find that don't mind telling you because it's that sort of game: it gives you a few ideas and allows you to figure the rest out, mostly using gravity and physics, and your bird's ability to pluck and pull things. I have been stuck and lost a few times, though, so there's clearly some work to be done. It is in need of a map and perhaps a few more formal hints just to get things moving. I'd also suggest reworking the current save system. It's currently possible to lose all your progress if you lose all your lives, so if you've been clumsy and died a lot then you're forced to repeat everything.
Even in a short game like this (a couple of hours, currently), this is wrong. But it's Early Access, and there's a chance we can make a difference by telling the developers that this, of all games, isn't the place for that sort of punishment. Not when the rest is so lovely.
It's quite an impressive array of games this week - not a dud in there, and all are pretty solid and interesting: even the pair games about crashing cars manage to be markedly different in form and function. I'm comfortable recommending all three for the potential they have.
Is it worth playing right now?
Next Car Game: Yes
Turbo Dismount: Yes
Secrets of Raetikon: Yes
Have you played this week's alphas? What do you think? Are there any alphas you'd like Craig to try out? Let us know in the comments.